I've always dreamed about writing the story of my family, starting with my Italian ancestors arriving and homesteading our property, settling in the wooden one-story by the creek with its outhouse and woodstove for heat. I'd tell about my father marrying a girl from the city, wooing her to the idyllic life of a dairy farmer and raising a crop of kids. I'd tell about my parents passing on the family farm to the next generation. Last year, I finally decided to devote some time to my secret pipedream, and I attended my first ever writing retreat. I was eager to learn the nuances of crafting a finished piece, but more than that, I wanted to learn how to get started. After the retreat, the group planned to undertake a 30-day challenge, writing every day in November.
"What are the rules?" I asked.
"You make them up," one writer said.
Alright, I thought. I'm in. But because I'd never done anything like it, I knew I'd need structure and guidelines. I set a goal that I would write at least 500 words a day. Not enough to complete a book, but enough to get a daily rhythm going and to get down bones that could be fleshed out into articles or essays or chapters of my dream novel. This could be a chance to begin traveling with my family’s stories.
Driving my kids home from school one day, I told them about the challenge.
"I want to do it," my newly minted teenager said.
In my mind I said, No you don't. And besides, I didn't invite you.
"Me too," Stella, my ten-year-old chimed in. Why was it that they only wanted to do something when I didn't ask, never when I did?
Writing, for me, is a solitary act. After having three kids in nine years, moving three times, and starting two businesses, I crave solitude. The time that I can steal sequestered in my studio to write, looking out the window—it's glorious. I can't get enough of it. To have uninterrupted time to pour my soul out onto the page is as wonderful as going to the spa for the afternoon. I write to unravel my own understanding, and these past few months, I have been writing particularly about being a mother to a teenager—uncharted waters for my husband and me, especially because my life changed so dramatically when I was my son's age.
On the first day of November, while the kids were at school, I wrote an essay entitled “Devout,” about leaving the Catholic Church after my mother died. I was 13 at the time, the youngest of nine children. I wrote about how the sanctuary of my church changed for me. Instead of being a refuge it became a place where my mother no longer was. It felt cathartic to revisit that time in my life. Writing permitted me to shed the guilt I'd carried about the decision to live spiritually, but without a formal religion.
On the car ride home from school later that day, the kids asked if we were going to do our writing. I hadn't reminded them of the challenge, and I was actually hoping that they would forget—but they hadn't. I didn't tell them that I had already done my writing. Instead, that evening, I pulled out their old journals and my large pink notebook, and I cleared the table to make space for an uncertain activity.
Finn, my seven-year-old, is still learning how to write, so I transcribed a story he told me. It was a mashup of autobiographical facts and other stories he's read: we were all characters, at our exact ages (ouch), and he was a spy trying to get the cookies out of the kitchen. The characters had code names (Ice Hawk and Fire Hawk) and black belts in karate, and, just as in real life, there was a cat named Socks. He finished his story first, and I looked around the table.
Stella was writing longhand in her journal, hunched over so I couldn't make out a word. She's like that, being my middle child; she flies under the radar, quiet and independent. I often don't know what she is up to until I make a concerted effort to find out, peering into her room to inquire.
Gibson, my teenager, began longhand but quickly abandoned his paper and switched to his laptop. In early elementary school, he had the most beautiful penmanship; elegant, swirling words printed crisply on the page. Somewhere along the way, his script became smaller and smaller, and now he prefers to type.
I stayed quiet while they wrote, not daring to interrupt their focus. This moment was so unexpected. I had been thinking about my writing, my challenge, my stories—but there, in the silence at my kitchen table where I could only hear Gibson's fingers on his keys, I recognized that something else was unfolding. Stella rested her pen and after a few moments Gibson's typing ceased, and he made eye contact indicating that he was finished. Before I knew what I was saying, the words, "Okay, let’s share now," slipped out of my mouth.
These were words from the writing retreat. Our teacher would give us an exercise, with detailed instructions and ideas, and we'd return to our notebooks and laptops to write for three or four hours, and then we'd reconvene. And share.
I didn't really intend for this to happen at the kitchen table with my family, but it did.
"I'll go first!" said Finn, who shared his spy story.
"I'll go next, but I can't read it," Gibson blurted, pushing his laptop towards the center of the table.
"Okay," I said, and read his story, a fantasy about humans' destruction of Earth, and Earth responding with reminders that it is more powerful than humans. He ended with a cliffhanger.
"What happens next?" Stella asked.
"I didn't have time to write any more!"
Stella read her story, which was more like a poem. She is a vocalist and is always humming a tune; her story felt like verses of a song. She ended her piece with a Wonder-esque precept: Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened.
When it was my turn, I didn't share "Devout." I couldn't contaminate my children's minds with worries about hearses and religion; they are firm believers in life, and I want it to stay that way. Instead, I shared a sweet story I had written a while ago about having my mother's hands and my sister's smile. When I read it aloud, I left out the paragraph about inheriting her risk for cancer.
My husband, Michael, was out of town on that first day, but the next day, the kids excitedly introduced him to the challenge. I was surprised when they quickly cleared the table after dinner—because they never clear without us asking, and because they pulled out their journals as soon as they were done. What was happening to my family? My husband went along and got out his laptop.
We settled in to write. After 20 minutes, we had all finished our pieces except for Michael; he was typing away furiously, completely engrossed and unaware that the rest of us had finished. We waited for another 10 or 15 minutes, and finally I stopped him so that we could move on to the second portion of our new evening ritual.
He shared first: a story about a mom dropping her kids off at school and the frantic scene in the parking lot. The kids are out of their car, other moms are jockeying to get a curbside position, a soccer ball slips out of this mom's trunk, the little girl chases after it, another car screeches. He left us hanging.
Where did all of that come from, I wondered? He surprised me with how quickly he jumped into the writing project and weaved together a story that captured everyone's attention. It was so intense, teetering closely upon the truth of our lives. "It's just fiction," he promised. The next time we wrote together, he switched to a new story, so none of us knows what happened to the little girl. We've bugged him to tell us, but he keeps putting us off, saying he'll get back to it. The other day I was walking through our bedroom and I saw him sitting in the gray chair by the window typing. I looked over his shoulder and I saw the story on his screen, the little girl and the soccer ball. I paused, desperate with curiosity; but then I thought, he will share it when he is ready. It scared me though. Why do I worry that his writing might have as much truth as mine?
We didn't write and share every night as a family, but we did it a couple of times a week throughout the month. I let go of my fear that my family would encroach upon my writing world, and instead welcomed them into it.
I established a pattern, writing my vulnerable pieces earlier in the day and journaling with them in the evenings. I realized how lucky I am to have a family that doesn't hesitate to try new things. I also realized that my kids are funny, that they have interesting things to say when there are no boundaries, no rules to follow, no concerns about grammar or spelling or getting an A. I needed structure for this month of writing, but my kids' involvement shed light on how flexibility, even with the guidelines I set for myself, allowed this magical family writing practice to unfold.
So much of our time is devoted to achievement: getting the grades, getting on the competitive sports teams, getting a role in the play, getting funding for the business, getting a decent dinner on the table. This time, these 20 or 30 minutes of us together, was about writing, talking, entertaining, and simply being in each other's company.
I am inspired by their writing, in ways I didn't expect to be, and I'm also inspired by their willingness to write and share abundantly; it took me months before I was willing to share my work, and even then, I could only do it with select people I trusted to be gentle with their critique. My children are unabashed; my husband, too. They dove into this challenge without expectation or goals and came up with pages and pages of stories. I don't know if it’s the safety of our kitchen table or the innocence of youth, but this writing habit is now imprinted on my children's souls and it’s a mode of expression they can turn to, if and when they choose. After spending a month writing with my family, I've shed some of my reservations about being a writer and submitting work.
During our 30 days of writing, we uncovered things we didn't know about one another: I didn't know that my oldest son cares so much about the environment. One of his stories followed a drop of water, from the sky to a red umbrella to the streets and eventually the tunnels underneath the city.
Stella's stories are all buttoned up—she neatly loops back to the beginning with every story. But she’s also poetic, writing lines like, "words swivel around me like snowflakes, and I can almost reach out and touch them." Swivel. That's not a word I use, and yet my ten-year-old weaves it into her story.
Finn's stories are all about getting us to laugh. He (or some variation of him) is typically the narrator, coming into conflict with a wildly dangerous foe that he conquers quickly, and almost all of his stories include pancakes. Or hot cocoa. Or cookies.
Michael amazed me with his passionate, high-adrenaline writing. I see that he, like me, has stories bubbling up, ready to burst out of him. He also has an incredible way of intertwining fact with fiction; he takes the landscape of our lives—the places we've traveled, the places we drive everyday—and interjects mystery.
I shared stories about growing up on the farm and about my mother (light recollections; the heavy ones I'd share with my husband after the children went to bed). I began to feel rich when I'd open my computer and see the directory of files under the Writing folder. As I produced sketches on all the characters in my family, I uncovered memories I hadn't thought about in years. Now I'm moving, full speed ahead, into that book of my family's stories.
I was sad when November became December and the challenge was over. I loved seeing my family fill the pages, and I secretly hope that they keep on writing. At the start of this journey I was worried about being able to achieve my 500 words, and doing what it takes to become a writer. But what unfolded during the month was something I never expected: my family writing our stories at the kitchen table and sharing them with one another. Since November, we've continued our practice three or four times a month. I've attended another retreat for memoirists. And, there's a new twist in the story of my own family. Just the other day, when a new friend asked Finn what his mom does, he replied, "Oh she's a writer."
Yes, I am.